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March 08, 2013

Polar Bears Denied Protection at CITES

Yesterday, at the United Nations conference on wildlife trade in Bangkok, a proposal from the United States and Russia to crack down on international commercial trade in hides and other polar bear body parts went down to defeat, with 38 nations favoring the proposal and 42 opposing it. Noticeably and disappointingly, 46 countries including the 27-member European Union, which votes as a bloc, abstained. Canada led the opposition to the U.S.-Russia proposal, because some people in communities in northern Canada hunt polar bears and sell the parts in international trade.

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James Richey/iStock

The Canadian hunters sell the hides to auction houses where they go for up to $12,000 each, a price double that of only five years ago and a sure sign of increased market demand. The number of hides sold at auction in Canada also tripled during this time. As polar bears get rarer, demand for their skins is increasing. The Canadian hunters also sell about 100 permits annually to foreign trophy hunters, collecting huge fees for the sale of hunting rights and guide fees.

Between 2001 and 2010, there were 32,350 polar bear parts catalogued in international trade, which equals 5,680 bears killed for commercial (e.g. bear skin rugs) and semi-commercial purposes (e.g. trophies). Canada is the main exporting country, while the U.S., Russia, Greenland and Norway prohibit export for commercial trade and trophy hunting.

The EU, Japan, and, increasingly, China, are main importers for skins and skin pieces for commercial purposes. Historically, the U.S. was the biggest market for trophies, although imports were mostly banned in 2008. However, there is still a major fight in Congress on the trophy import issue, with Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association pleading with lawmakers to amend the federal law to allow their wealthy trophy-hunting members to bring home the remains of bears they shot in Canada just before the U.S. government listed the species under federal law as "threatened" with extinction.

Scientists projected in 2007 that we will lose two thirds of the world's polar bears by 2050 โ€“ a 66 percent decline in 43 years. Most groups are united in wanting to deal with the effects of climate change on polar bears and other species. But there are differences on the trade issues. The HSUS and Humane Society International, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, argued that the U.S.-Russia trade prohibition will help polar bears by halting the frivolous killing of the animals for their parts. Amazingly enough, the World Wildlife Fund, which has sponsorship from Coca-Cola to protect polar bears, opposed the U.S.-Russia proposal, arguing that climate change is a more severe threat than international commercial trade in polar bear skins. It was this opposition from the World Wildlife Fund that contributed to the defeat of the U.S.-Russia proposal.

In my mind, their argument is akin to someone saying they fear nuclear proliferation, and therefore they oppose efforts to prevent pollution of our rivers or the destruction of public lands. Yes, climate change may present a much longer term threat to polar bears, but we can attack threats to the bears from multiple angles. It will take many years to turn around climate change threats, but that should not slow down our efforts to stop international trade in polar bears right now.

Sincere thanks should go to the Obama Administration, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and to their partners in the Russian Federation for advancing the polar bear protection proposal. It is a painful loss for all of us concerned about polar bears, and we are deeply disturbed to know that even as polar bears suffer the crippling impact of climate-induced habitat loss, Canadians will be able to kill as many polar bears as they like and sell their parts around the world.

The international convention continues its work with a wide range of critical decisions coming up in the next few days dealing with manatees, turtles, elephants, rhinos, sharks and other species threatened by trade. The HSI team is there in Bangkok, working tirelessly to protect these vulnerable creatures.

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